PHOENIX — Every Time Luka Doncic turned a corner in search of daylight, there were dark jerseys around, equipped with long arms and anxious looks.
He made ground meat with the Utah defenders a few days ago, but the Phoenix Suns are quite different. Deandre Ayton comfortably turned it on, and later, JaVale McGee made Doncic the No. 1 entry on his career highlight reel with a Statue of Liberty-style steal and dunk that put the Footprint Center crowd on top.
And that’s before you get arguably the best defensive wing collection in the game, led by the Defensive Player of the Year finalist. Mikal Bridges. Defending a nuke like Doncic requires everything a team has to offer, and while Doncic still had a productive night, it wasn’t enough to make Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals more than competitive in fits and starts.
Doncic seemed to favor his left thigh, but it only bothered him so much, as he finished with his sixth playoff game of 40 points, a bid of 45 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists. But Dallas went 2-4 in those contests, and a good amount was accumulated late when the game was essentially out of reach.
“He got everything he wanted. You look at the shots, in the paint, behind the arc, at half range,” Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said. “I think he’s very good game. I know he gon’ watch these turnovers [five] and say he can be better, but he did everything to help his team position themselves to try to win on the road.
The Suns jumped on the Mavericks early, as the two were still wearing the scent of their previous playoff opponent. Kidd warned his team that Ayton was not like Rudy Gobert, and it shows. Ayton tied Devin Booker for the most shot attempts (20), finishing with 25 points and eight rebounds in 33 minutes.
It’s not that they’re conceding Ayton, it just might be the best of all the options available given the Suns’ quality and cohesiveness. Dallas doesn’t have the size to run at Ayton, and if he takes the ball away from Booker and Chris Paul for long stretches, Kidd and his team might believe it will destabilize Phoenix’s precision offense.
It wasn’t over when the Suns took a 15-point lead eight minutes into the game, but it highlighted several things Dallas will need to address when this is all over. Jalen Brunson was a star in Dallas’ first-round series against Utah, especially when Doncic came out with a calf strain. But he struggled to find space against those same long defenders Doncic was sailing against.
Doncic worked up to a 50% overnight, but Brunson – who isn’t as physically imposing as his longtime mate – didn’t have the same success. For Dallas to do more than sweat the Suns, it’s going to have to be Doncic, Brunson and Spencer Dinwiddie applying pressure with their shot creation.
Dinwiddie was a low-key 3 of 8 in 30 minutes, while Brunson was 6 of 16 in 31 minutes. Brunson will be a coveted free agent this summer and while he’s valuable to Dallas, finding an athletic wing to play alongside Doncic could be the ultimate goal in taking this franchise to a true championship.
“I don’t think the attack was the problem tonight. On the defensive side, I think everyone was a bit lazy, especially in the first half,” said Doncic. “Now we have to change them.”
Minus Doncic, Dallas shot 45% and felt like it had enough offense to compete. But the slow start seemed to doom the Mavericks.
“Obtain [Brunson] go there in the second half, and Spencer, we have to do a better job there,” Kidd said. “[Doncic] was good in the second half too. We just gotta help someone join the party.
“I thought we were rushing a bit there because we got off to a slow start. We’re on those hits that we normally get, we just take our team. The basketball game is all about hits and misses, we didn’t shoot well in the first half, we have to bounce back.
Until a big-name free agent takes Mark Cuban’s money, that’s what Kidd has to work with — and it’s not that he doesn’t have capable players. Kidd led the franchise in its first second-round appearance since 2011 – the year he won the NBA title.
For Dallas to become a fixture in those areas, keeping defensive attention busy, especially vertically, is the No. 1 goal. he could often adopt this strategy.
Maxi Kleber was the only one to join the party, but despite his 19 points and five threes, he was hounded defensively.
And that dichotomy could very well spell the end for the Mavericks overall, at least for now. For every leak plugged, another springs up – and you can’t have that in May. They were outshot 51-36 and more than enough long rebounds stayed on the Suns side of the field, deflating any real comeback attempts.
Booker scored 23 goals with nine rebounds and eight assists. Paul was in his HORSE bag, with tough fadeaways and leaning jumpers to score 19 with five rebounds and three assists, and reserve Cam Johnson scored 17 off the bench.
The Suns’ toughness and physicality were evident, perhaps indicative of their aim to avenge last year’s Finals loss. Booker, who blocked Brunson’s shot from behind in the first half, called him rubbish and was given a technical foul.
Later, Doncic was double-crossed after being accidentally punched in the groin by Jae Crowder – one of his many all-night defenders.
“We need to be more physical, we need to play a little faster,” said swingman Dorian Finney-Smith, who found himself guarding Ayton in the fourth quarter when the Mavericks got super small.
Finney-Smith gives up four inches and 30 pounds to Ayton, so the fight rhetoric means a little more than usual.
“We’re playing a lot more tenaciously and struggling this fourth quarter, so everyone was moving and talking. It has to be like this the whole game,” Finney-Smith said.
Dallas thinks they’ve found something late and that’s probably the best approach to take given the real answers won’t come until July.